ST. PETERSBURG — In what could be a boost for Mayor Bill Foster's bid to stay in office, city officials announced Monday that Wal-Mart is opening a Neighborhood-Market store at the Midtown location vacated by Sweetbay in February.
The retail giant has agreed to a 13-year lease that will bring almost 100 jobs to one of the city's poorest neighborhood. The 39,000-square-foot store on 22nd Street South is scheduled to open Jan. 1, but hiring and training will likely start in December, city leaders said.
The store's opening can hardly come soon enough for nearby residents who for months have been without a grocery store within walking distance. The Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market is also expected to bring relief to neighboring stores in the Tangerine Plaza shopping center, whose business slumped after Sweetbay closed.
“This is something very exciting and transformative to the City of St. Petersburg,” Foster said.
Foster's response to the Midtown grocery's closing — one of 30 closed in Florida and nine in Pinellas County — has been cited by leaders of the black community and critics as an example of his poor leadership. The city invested $1.3 million to develop Tangerine Plaza to bring a grocery store to Midtown, one of several projects intended to rejuvenate the area.
Sweetbay officials said they warned Foster roughly a year before announcing the closure that the store was losing money. His opponent in November's general election, Rick Kriseman, said Foster did not act quickly enough to prevent the store sitting empty.
“As mayor, I would have begun the process of recruiting another grocery store that same day,” he said in a statement. “This is unfortunate and speaks to the lack of leadership coming out of City Hall.”
Foster said he worked hard to convince Sweetbay to keep the store open and even made a trip to Gainesville to meet with company executives.
Deadlocked in the most recent poll, winning more support from black voters could be crucial for Foster, who trailed Kriseman in most precincts in South St. Petersburg during the primary election.
Any boost in the polls will depend on whether the community thinks Foster played a hand in recruiting Wal-Mart, said Manuel Sykes, pastor of the Bethel Community Baptist Church on 54th Avenue South.
“I think that if there is an assumption that he did then it probably will help him,” Sykes said. “Cautious people would want to know for sure what his role was in it.”
Wal-Mart's lease includes six five-year options to extend, meaning the store could be there for a total of 43 years under the agreement, said Larry Newsome, head of Urban Development Solutions, which is the landlord of the plaza.
Negotiations with Wal-Mart began in March. They were complicated by the 13-year outstanding lease that Sweetbay still had for the store and because the city owns the land.
The deal also included a $300,000 donation from The Edwards Group. Roughly $200,000 of that will go to a maintenance reserve fund for the plaza, said former Mayor Rick Baker, president of the company, which manages the Mahaffey Theater and bought and is renovating the BayWalk shopping plaza downtown. Fixing up and painting stripes on the parking lot will use up $50,000 of that money, and the remainder will be used as seed money to fill the one vacant unit at the plaza with Midtown Shops, a cooperative of small retailers that could not afford to rent an entire storefront, Baker said.
“Bill Edwards has long believed in the Midtown effort,” he said.
During talks with Wal-Mart officials, Foster offered assurances that any permit applications would be fast-tracked.
“I said, 'If you want a midnight concrete pouring, I can do it,' ” Foster said.
This afternoon, Meme's Beauty Gallery, located a few doors from the empty grocery store, was quiet.
Business has dropped by 40 percent since Sweetbay closed, said owner Jamekka Harris, who has struggled to pay her rent. She is optimistic that some of Wal-Mart's customers will come her way.
“It's been real hard; we need traffic flow,” she said. “I was about ready to leave.”